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Doug Conant '76

Doug Conant '76

Campbell Soup chief Conant ’76 pours his passion into the job

By Rebecca Lindell

Douglas Conant ’76 knows what it takes to climb back from defeat.

As an aspiring tennis player, he had to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t cut out for a professional career on the courts.

Shortly after starting his first post-Kellogg job, he was told bluntly by his boss that he “wasn’t up to standards and never would be.”

And a decade after graduating from the Kellogg School, he faced 12 months of unemployment after the trauma of losing his job.

Years later, Conant looks back on those humbling experiences as formative moments in his career. Now president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co., Conant has earned a reputation as a turnaround expert, able to clear a new path for organizations that have lost their way. It’s something of a calling for the Kellogg grad, who has learned a thing or two about bouncing back from adversity.    

“You have to pour your heart into your work. If you don’t take it personally, the organization will not take it personally,” Conant says. “If you’re dealing with it in a clinical, neutral, objective way, you’ll get a clinical, neutral, objective response from your employees. That is simply an insufficient response to create breakthrough performance. You have to make it personal.”

Since taking the reins at Campbell in 2001, Conant has restored the company to prosperity after years of declining sales. In September, the company reported a very solid 7 percent increase in earnings from continuing operations in the face of the most challenging cost environment to face the food industry in decades; Conant says he expects the company to exceed its targets for next year, too.

This feat has come on the heels of other hard-won successes. Prior to joining Campbell, Conant spent nearly a decade at Nabisco, where he led the marketing effort to revitalize the Nabisco Biscuit Company. Under Conant, Nabisco Foods Company had five straight years of double-digit earnings growth. Conant led the Lifesavers Candy Company and the Planters Nut Company to record performance levels.

Conant has brought to these efforts passion, agility and a determination to learn from the past. And something else: a desire to engage his workforce on the deepest level, so that they too will have a stake in the firm’s success.

It’s not just talk. Conant says morale was at an extremely low level when he joined the soup company, and the despondency was reflected in the company’s performance. The firm was in a “circle of doom,” Conant says, over-promising results, cutting services and becoming ever-less-competitive. By 2000 Campbell had lost half its market value.

There was simply no way to climb out of that hole without the full commitment of Campbell’s workforce. Hence, the deal: “I told our employees, ‘We can’t expect you to value our agenda as a company until we show you that we value your personal agenda and time,’” Conant says. “‘We’re going to create a culture in which you are engaged in a way that is meaningful to you.’” This led to the development of what Conant calls the “Campbell Promise: Campbell Valuing People. And People Valuing Campbell.”

Conant’s concern goes beyond feel-good rhetoric. A fully engaged workforce, he says, has a direct impact on shareholder returns. Indeed, the firm now boasts one of the highest levels of engagement among all those surveyed by Gallup, paralleling the rise in the firm’s profits.

Engagement is one of the four qualities Conant believes a successful food company must possess. The first three, he says, have always been in place at Campbell: large, attractive categories with good growth potential; “power brands” that are already first or second within those categories; and a sound financial structure with good cash flow “because in a brand-driven culture, it takes money to make money.”

Other steps Conant has taken to revitalize the company include cutting down on slow-growth businesses and replacing 300 of the top 350 company leaders, with 150 people promoted from within. “It took us years, but every year we did a little better and built up an increasingly higher-performing organization,” Conant says. “We were the worst-performing food company in 2001. Now we have a shot at being the best by 2010. We’ve done a 180, and it’s very gratifying to see the company thriving again.”

Given Conant’s passion for business, it’s startling to hear that before graduating from Kellogg, he had never worked in a corporate setting. Indeed, the Glencoe, Ill., native had pursued a tennis career while earning his MBA, but gave up that dream after a frank assessment of his skills. “I just wasn’t good enough,” he admits.

Fortunately, his Kellogg professors were inspiring him to compete in a different arena. Conant had always had an interest in marketing, but it wasn’t until he studied under professors such as Philip Kotler, Lou Stern and Ram Charan that he realized he had found his true calling.

“I suddenly saw how interesting and exciting a business career could be,” says Conant, a Northwestern undergrad who enrolled at Kellogg immediately after college. “You were challenged in every class to be at your best. The conversation was at a very high level, and you had to keep up.”

Even so, his first job after business school began on a less-than-promising note. He arrived at General Mills decked out for the ’70s in “an afro, a Fu Manchu moustache and a madras tie and khaki suit,” he recalls with a laugh. “And a tan line where my tennis headband had been.”

But his supervisors weren’t laughing. One told him he ought to be looking for a new line of work, “that I wasn’t up to standards and never would be.”

“It was obvious that I needed to adjust something,” he recalls. “But the wonderful thing was, I discovered I could still be who I was and evolve the way I presented myself.”

Conant put his nose to the grindstone and realized that he loved helping to create high-performing organizations that could thrive in the face of adversity. “It is exciting and very fulfilling to get people banded together with a common sense of purpose and then to help them achieve extraordinary results in a sustainable fashion. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Conant spent nearly 10 years at General Mills, eventually becoming marketing director of a subsidiary, Parker Brothers, the toy and game company. When the company was sold off, Conant was out of work for about a year. The downtime was a “traumatic and humbling experience,” but changed him for the better.

“Before I was fired, I had kept my head down and did what I’d been asked to do,” he recalls. “I came to realize there was a much bigger world out there, and that I need to engage with it differently. There was so much more to learn and to do.”

Ultimately Conant found work at Kraft, where he rose to become director of corporate strategy. In 1992 he moved to Nabisco, where he debuted as a General Manager and went on to greater successes.

Now, at Campbell, Conant has found a challenge that draws on all his powers of engagement.

“It’s important that it not just be about work,” Conant says. “I am devoted to the work in a deeply personal way. To me, it’s a craft; it’s sacred ground. And it’s important that I honor that ground and the people with whom I am working.”

Posted November 2008

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